Capital highlights: Gas prices are at their highest level since 2014
As Texans hit the roads this summer with pandemic restrictions eased and vaccinations widespread, the national average price of gas is expected to top $3 per gallon, though the average in Texas for regular is $2.799, according to AAA. Drivers should expect prices to keep rising as demand rises, according to the Consumer Energy Alliance.
“With oil’s continued push higher, fueled by continued strong demand globally and production only slowly answering, gasoline prices have had no choice but following oil’s rise last week setting a new 2021 high,” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy. “…It appears the only way forward is for gas prices to continue to rise as Americans’ insatiable demand for gasoline continues to act as a catalyst. And with hurricane season soon coming into its prime, we have plenty more catalysts for a rise in price, and few that could restrain the situation. Motorists should prepare to dig deeper for the second half of the summer, unfortunately.”
TEA releases test results; widespread decrease in performance
State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) results for spring 2021 show that outcomes for in-person learners were appreciably higher than those who attended classes online during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of students not meeting grade level increased from 2019 across all subject areas and grade levels, with the exception of English, according to the Texas Education Agency.
“Thankfully, from early on, Texas prioritized the availability of in-person instruction during this tremendously difficult year,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said. “When students come into Texas public schools, they are well-served by Texas educators — a fact that these scores confirm. But it is also painfully clear that the pandemic had a very negative impact on learning. I shudder to consider the long-term impact on children in states that restricted in-person instruction.”
School districts that had a higher percentage of students learning virtually had higher declines in STAAR results in all grades and subjects, TEA reported. For example, districts in which fewer than one-fourth of students were learning remotely saw a 9-percentage point drop in math performance from 2019 to 2021. In districts were more than three-fourths of students were learning remotely, the decline was 32 percentage points.
Higher ed gets $94.6 million in emergency relief
Federal pandemic funding continues to trickle down to Texas colleges and universities, with the latest round bringing nearly $100 million in emergency relief. Last year the state allocated $175 million in federal funds to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to support higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Investing in our higher education system is the single best way to bolster the workforce that Texas has become known for and accelerate our state’s economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan.
About half the funding will go to expand capacity for high-demand and high-value educational opportunities, including work-based learning and apprenticeships. Other programs to be funded include financial aid; establishing a one-stop advising resource to help students connect with higher education opportunities; and expanding outreach to adult learners to meet workforce demands of state employers.
Vaccinations slowly increase in state
The number of Texans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 reached 11.937 million this week, or about 41% of the state’s total population, according to Texas Health and Human Services. Hospitalizations in the past week of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases rose slightly to 1,502. New cases in Texas increased to 10,493 compared to the previous week, with 193 deaths recorded, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Putting manufacturing sector in perspective
A report from the state comptroller’s office notes that Texas’ manufacturing sector contributed $241 billion to the state’s gross domestic product in 2019, about 13% of its total economic output. That is larger than the manufacturing output in both Russia and Mexico. Before the pandemic, manufacturing employed about 909,000 Texans. As of February 2021, seasonally adjusted total manufacturing jobs were below pre-pandemic levels by 53,000, or nearly 6%.
Many of the job losses were in industries tied to the oil and gas sector — fabricated metal products and machinery manufacturing. Those two industries accounted for nearly two-thirds of the manufacturing job losses since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Most funding ever for transit operations
The Texas Transportation Commission approved $89 million last week for transit operations across the state, the most ever allocated at one time. About 60% of the funding comes from federal pandemic funds, with the rest provided by the state. The funding includes more than $10 million from the feds to help transit agencies manage the impact of COVID-19. Nearly 20 million transit rides were recorded statewide, even during the pandemic.
“When most services shut down during the pandemic, these transit agencies continued serving thousands of Texans across the state,” TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said. “In a time when they were needed most, these agencies helped people get to jobs, groceries or the medical care they needed. This additional funding will continue to improve access for Texans.”
Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.